FringeReview UK 2017
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. Directed by Philip Bird, who returns in the next Massinger The Unnatural Combat at Gray’s Inn on October 29th. After that Jason Morell directs The Great Duke of Florence back at the Globe Wanamaker on November 12th.
It’s back! Every so often by popular demand a play from this Read Not Dead series is repeated. Philip Massinger’s and John Fletcher’s scabrous, bawdy and exhilarating The Custom of the Country from around 1620 was last seen here in 1998. That’s three years into this epic traversal of dramatized readings of all surviving plays between 1567-1642.
Directed by Philip Bird its features the brilliant plotting and wit of Fletcher with the heightened language and situations Massinger’s famous for. Both are superb comedians, and only scholars have disentangled their respective contributions.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep; sometimes it’s like cutting ancient paper to reveal a text never seen, though occasionally plays like The Custom of the Country are back by popular demand.
This is a superb play, not only one of the finest collaborations but with an Act V unravelment worthy of Measure for Measure, indeed taking some of that play’s blind advocacy. Several of the characters undergo transforming by purgation, and singular purges at that. Sex and violence work curious magic.
Props here take the forms of shades as disguise (donning sunglasses a recurring comic trope) police caps and a bow and arrow wielded by the heroine Zenocia flanked by two brothers in toy wooden swords. If someone wields so fearsome a weapon you know it’ll end happily.
Act I’s by Fletcher, and its racy dialogue full of dispatch and short-breathed sentences even within longer speeches exhales its urgency and exposition. Joseph Balderrama’s Count Clodio is an Italian governor claiming and enjoying the time-worn droit de seigneur (‘the custom of the country’); he’s also lusting after Zenocia – in extenuation, he wants to marry her afterwards. Consoling, that.
It’s a role Balderrama plays up with a comic braggadocio undercut by his own exaggerated bombast. He can also affectingly denote alteration, even honour. The part begins one-dimensioned villain and ends reflectively assuming battered dignity.
RND regular Emily Tucker’s flaming heroine is both ardently heroic and vulnerable: there’s much to undergo from several sources and her sterling delivery ensures we’re nailed with each mood and line. Tucker continually tests herself and her lover at each turn. And indeed that bow and arrow aimed at Balderrama’s Count Clodio’s pretty compelling – Tucker recites these brandishing lines without resort to text too. She’s horribly virtuous, even more adamantine than her new husband. You pray a little charity be pricked out in both. ‘Your tears do nothing. I will not lose my custom’ Clodio adds, retorting to Zenocia’s ‘My mind shall not pay this custom, cruel man’ with ‘Your body will content me’ cutting through all courtly pleas many previous fictions deployed.
Unsurprisingly against her complacent father Charino’s advice (Michael Eaves moving from doddering pander to plodding decency with a winsome ruefulness), Zenocia prefers Mathew Foster’s decent high-minded Arnoldo, a performance strong in verbal heroics and limited only by virtue and occasionally – heart-warmingly – flickers of its opposite. He’s curiously already thirty he tells us, travelling with his older brother Rutillio.
Rutillio’s Charlie Anson grasps his chance to spark off not only his younger virtuous sibling, but Zenocia and indeed everyone else. Here, unlike the recently-performed The Elder Brother, it’s the eldest who’s cynical, regrets he can’t enjoy the droit de signeur. Be careful what you wish for Rutillio, you may encounter something like that. Anson’s crackling performance is one of the two most exuberant of the company, a man who doesn’t scruple to declare but for scruples he’d out-count the Count.
And where there is a wench I’ the’ case, a young wench,
A handsome wench, and so near a good turn too,
An I were to be hang’d, thus must I handle it.
This exhortative language from Fletcher misleads you into thinking the play might be all bawdy, but it’s richer than that, though doesn’t hold back from some of the lustiest scenes of the period. ‘I love the game so well but that this puckfist/This universal rutter –‘ Rutillio breaks off but his admiration’s clear. Rutillio talks much of taking off the heads of maidens like a meat market. Indeed it’s he not Count Clodio who uses the most sexualised language.
Arnoldo and Zenocia marry, scorning Count Clodio’s stake of a ‘right’ with Zenocia. Along with the cynical but loyal Rutillio, they escape with Clodio rampant in pursuit.
Enter Massinger’s longer expressiveness in Act II. There’s a complete shift as Ryan Ellsworth’s strong-voiced, authoritative Manuel de Sosa, governor of Lisbon commiserates with his sister Guiomar, the energetic, memorable regular Emma Pallant, here more muted till the end. The commiseration’s over her son Duarte. Liam Jefford’s another character about to undergo transformation: from bully to Boethius in a bludgeon.
Meanwhile reaching the sea coast, the fleeing trio are waylaid by David Acton’s Leopold, the captain of a Portuguese vessel. The two young men escape by swimming to shore, but Zenocia falls into Leopold’s tender mercies. And tender they are. He proves honourable, repents the young men’s possible drowning and bestows Zenocia with a woman he’s admired from afar.
Enter rich Hippolita, Gloria Onitiri, a match in language, fire and sexual vigour for Rutillio. She more than counterbalances Rutillio and Clodio in one, though a pang says it’s a pity she eventually desires the other brother and hardly meets Rutillio, the man born (so one thinks) to do her best office. As we discover here, rampant desire’s an equal ops in this play, and not just from Hippolita.
Quixotically the starving brothers part because one is favoured and taken up. Zabulon the Jew, Greg Haiste’s sharp-witted servant to Hippolita, rescues Arnaldo to Rutillio’s amusement, and the lucky brother’s bestowed in Hippolita’s house.
Rutillio’s adventures become subplot. He reluctantly fights a duel with Manuel’s arrogant young nephew Duarte and apparently kills him. A desperate Rutillio is unknowingly sheltered by his opponent’s mother Guidomar, which gives us the most anguished moment of the play. She discovers it’s her son’s who’s been killed by Rutillio. She sticks to her own rule of hospitality and refuses to give him away though asks not to see his face before he leaves in II iv.
Vengeance knocks at my heart, but my word given
Denes the entrance: Is no medium left,
But that I must protect the murderer,
Or suffer in that faith he made his altar?
Motherly love, give place…
The language prefigures Hippolita’s later unjust harangues of vengeance against Rutillio’s brother. Both those scenes are Massinger’s. Such neat parallels and the way they balance marks not only the play’s intricacy, but how the two playwrights collaborated in the structuring.
Rutillio’s then arrested by the watch, then ransomed by Laura Cox’s wacky Sulpitia for her sexual service. And not just her. Rutillio’s service as a very in-demand male stud is about to begin to his unbounded joy. We’re with Fletcher again in III iii:
Bring me a hundred of ‘em; I’ll dispatch ‘em.
I will be none but yours: …
What women you shall please: I am monstrous lusty.
And he begins in a brothel for the high ladies and young women of the city. A brace of RND’s FOH suddenly appear eager for Rutillio’s favours and are ushered behind the rich curtain which here fronts the double doors. Only later does he tire of it, and nearly broken is visited by a comic scene of ghosts from the gallery ‘your predecessors’ they wail, broken winded and a lot more. It’s a wonderfully white-capped and surplice-donning moment by three male company members, high jinks in junked libidos. Rutting Rutillio realizes he’s been had, as it were. Fourteen woman a day, for five days, with guitarist Lachlan McCall’s Jacques servant to Sulpitia pleading for Rutillio’s rest.
It was this inversion or roles contributed to the play’s reputation for indecency. John Dryden famously referred to Custom in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie; he was moved to defend Restoration plays from the charge of lewdness (later redoubled in the milder 1690s), and claimed that there is more ‘bawdry’ in this play ‘than in all ours together.’ Henry Weber in his massive fourteen-volume 1812 edition of the Fletcher-involved plays laments lubriciousness but exculpates the play: ‘The ribaldry is perhaps more direct, but it is far less pernicious than that which occurs in most of the comedies of that poet’s time.’ (Vol 2 p. 271). A threat of Hobbesian chaos haunted the Restoration stage; its lusts were bleak enough for a later age to turn back to imagined certainties. Happily we can enjoy both Custom and Restoration. A case of firing out one bad angel with a flight of new ones.
Meanwhile Duarte’s not dead but through Jessica Temple’s Doctor and under his uncle the Governor Manuel’s offices, secretly recovers. Temple also supplies songs and gives a winning couple of numbers including Donna Summer’s ‘Let Me Run’ as a kind of torch-song for Hippolita, way up in the gallery. Her contribution lifts the production in musicality and sparkiness, McCall’s guitar adding a twang of poignant autumn music. It’s terrific, and a welcome break to frantic plotting.
Like Rutillio Duarte’s a changed, repentant man. Just as Rutillio’s member doing service as a sexual rapier has self-inflicted a turning from pure lust out of exhaustion and satiety, so his other rapier point has lanced the braggart out of his erstwhile opponent. A shade-disguised Duarte’s grateful, but in Jefford’s layered response we see he wishes to test not only his injurer whom he redeems from sexual bondage, but test in another sort.
It’s the oddest quirk of the play. Rutillio has conceived a passion for Pallant’s Guiomar and notwithstanding he still thinks Duarte dead, he thinks to console the man’s mother. She naturally scorns this but is attracted. Duarte initially fearing his mother weighs him as nothing against new desires, is disabused when we discover what plans she really has for Rutillio as she thinks her son’s murdered.
Duarte duly tests him and his mother, who through the governor’s connivance knows nothing of her son’s recovery. This involves a double blind on Duarte’s part.
Much of this is Fletcher’s work. Massinger concentrates on the noble couple but when sexual realism’s concerned, it’s Fletcher who in IV iii bringing the two lovers under Hippolita’s roof – Zenocia as bondswoman, Arnoldo as guest the latter admits regarding faithfulness:
At first view, being taken unprepared,
Your memory not present then to assist me,
She seemed so glorious, sweet, and so far stirred me –
Zenocia cuts him off. It’s delicious.
Hippolita though is infinitely more single-minded. When Zabulon suggests the disdaining Arnoldo ‘lose his head’ she breaks into one of her fiery ripostes in Massinger’s powerful handling of III v:
Is that the means to quench the scorching heat
Of my enrag’d desires? Must innocence suffer,
‘Cause I am faulty? Or is my love so fatal,
That of necessity it must destroy
The object it most longs for? Dull Hippolita,
To think that injuries could make way for love,
When courtesies were despis’d! that by his death
Thou shouldst gain that, which only thou canst long for
While he is living! My honour’s at the stake now,
And cannot be preserved, unless he perish.
The enjoying of the thing I love, I ever
Have prized above my fame…
This is beautifully modelled and – self-evidently – psychologically acute. Onitri’s pained exuberance, and exploding lusts engorge the stage in a terrific, assured display of verbal and physical pyrotechnics, often sprawling at the edge of the stage. She’s thrillingly commanding, sexy and very dangerous.
Yet she can fine down to mock empathy or real distress and eventually remorse. Exhorting Sulpitia to conjure the now-escaped Zenocia – the governor has called and released the lovers – she thinks again.
It’s interesting that Rutillio essays an equal twitting of the Jewish Zabulon, Haiste’s rapidly darting ebullient servant, with ‘Christian’ bawd and sorceress Sulpitia, in Cox’s energetic comically twittering rendering. They’re mentioned in the same line, and weighed equally. It’s singular, given the anti-Semitism of many texts. Both religions are offered a mild villain who yet reform as their part-time mistress does.
The resolutions in Act V, both of Hippolita’s repentance and of the triple bind of Rutillio, Duarte and Guiomar are superbly handled, as Massinger wraps the act in his take on complex unravelment worthy of Measure for Measure or Cymbeline, and Fletcher intersperses it with the mother-son-suitor-and-wounder trio.
In all this not only are the married faithful couple able to consummate their love, Charino with Ellsworth’s patrician-voiced governor Manuel beaming at the prospect; Rutillio eventually marries Guidomar and Hippolita finally accepts Acton’s decent Leopold. The agency here – physical transformations wrought on Rutillio, Duaerte, and on the recovered lovers (Arnoldo pines for the sickening Zenocia) – gifts us the trope of purgation. This works even on Hippolita and indeed Clodio who both renounce former desires, though not desire itself. Though labelled as a Chastity play, it’s a drama breaking effortlessly out of that rather dour, prurient genre. McCall and Temple provide fizzy renderings of prologue and epilogue.
Bird has caught this company on the wing dare one say – it’s more than crackling, almost colliding with RND’s rightly-vaunted adrenalin; you might say the air’s blue with electricity and well, blue…. Bird’s next production at Gray’s Inn can only be eagerly anticipated by those who’ve seen this.
Like the recently-mounted The Elder Brother, though far more complex, The Custom of the Country is a work crying out for production. It’s had one or two, though this spirited, superbly idiomatic, wacky and unfailingly inventive company ought to be proud their efforts lifted this heavy-texted work to the pitch of laughter. Even when occasionally it wasn’t at first intended, they made sure it soon was.